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New Bass production honors Scottish country legend

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The Orkney and Shetland archipelagos north of Scotland are a world away from Texas.

Scottish writer and musician Duncan McLean pointed that out several times during a recent phone conversation from his home in the Orkneys.

"It's cold and gray here," he said. "And the island I'm on is only 15 miles across at its longest."

McLean is the author of "Long Gone Lonesome," a music-based play about Scotland's least known but most fascinating musical phenomenon, Thomas Fraser.

Produced by the National Theater of Scotland, "Long Gone Lonesome" makes its United States premiere this week at the Bass Concert Hall.

Fraser was a fisherman who lived his entire life on the remote Shetland island of Burra. Obsessed with country music and the blues, he mastered the styles of his idols such as Hank Williams and yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, listening to 78 rpm records. Too shy to perform in public — and arguably too misunderstood by his fellow Shetlanders — Fraser recorded hundreds of country and blues songs on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

In his lifetime, Fraser gave away only a few recordings to friends and family. But it wasn't until years after his 1978 death at age 50, that Fraser's tapes were discovered by his grandson Karl Simpson.

That discovery eventually led to the public release of Fraser's music. The first CD, "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," was released in 2002 to critical and commercial success, with music lovers appreciative of Fraser's unique, plaintive voice and country music scholars heralding him as gifted interpreter. In total, five CDs of Fraser's music have been released, and now the Thomas Fraser Memorial Festival takes place in Burra every year.

The idea of a theatrical tribute to Fraser's life came from National Theatre director John Tiffany, who directed the critically acclaimed drama about a Scottish regiment's experience in the Iraq War, "Black Watch," which played the Bass Concert Hall last year. Tiffany commissioned McLean to write a stage play centered on Fraser's music. McLean and his group, the Lone Star Swing Band, tap into Fraser's repertoire, while his life is illuminated through McLean's storytelling.

For all his research into Fraser's life, though, McLean said the fisherman-cum-country singer remains an enigma. Perhaps, in Fraser's imagination, the gray horizon of the North Atlantic became a stand-in for the sun-filled endless plains of the American West?

"There's no simple answer to that," McLean said. "He lived on a bleak island in a particularly repressed Scottish community, making a living in a really tough, dangerous manner. In those days in Scotland, country music was very little appreciated. In this global age of ours, it's hard to imagine how isolated (Fraser) was and how bizarre his musical interest must have seemed to others. It must have seemed that he was singing the music of aliens."

And yet, American country music descended directly from the music traditions of British, Scottish and Irish immigrants, among other influences.

Perhaps the reasons a sheltered Scottish fisherman would find such an affinity with western swing and early blues are not so alien.

"Thomas was an extreme person: extremely talented but also extremely shy," McLean said. "But his story taps into something elemental, something universal."

Like all of us, Fraser had dreams and fantasies, which he pursued no matter how outlandish or how unattainable.

McLean readily identified with Fraser's fascination for American vernacular music. And he had the perfect résumé for taking on the task of artfully realizing it for the stage.

Upon winning the Somerset Maugham Award for his short story collection "Bucket of Tongues" in 1993, McLean used the prize money to travel to Texas and indulge his own passion for swing music, in particular country legend Bob Wills.

After learning to drive, McLean crisscrossed Texas in a rented car searching for the story of western swing but actually discovering the great pastiche of Texas culture. His resulting travelogue, "Lone Star Swing" (W. W. Norton), documented the quirky yet heartfelt side of Texas.

"I have an affinity with Fraser because I know how isolated it feels on these islands," McLean said. "But then I can just get on a plane and cross the Atlantic."

McLean has crossed the Atlantic many times to visit Texas since his first trip in the mid-1990s. And this time he has arranged for himself and his band to arrive a few days early. This weekend they're in Hillsboro for a celebration of Texas swing great Tommy Duncan.

"There's so much I want to show the band since they haven't been to Texas before: the Broken Spoke, barbecue in Lockhart," McLean said.

Also making a first-ever trip to Texas for the show is Fraser's daughter, May, and her son Karl, who first brought his grandfather's recordings to light.

Like the previous National Theatre of Scotland production, the audience will be seated on the vast Bass Concert Hall stage for "Long Gone Lonesome" in a configuration similar to a Texas dance hall. After each performance but the Saturday afternoon matinee, McLean and the band will slide right from the play into a set of music and invite the audience to kick up their heels.

"In the end, this is about the music," says McLean.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘Long Gone Lonesome'